DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: LAST KING OF SCOTLAND

Monday 19 February 2007


Last King of Scotland (2007) dir. Kevin MacDonald
Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy


“Last King of Scotland” is a great film, but not just of because of Forest Whitaker’s, most-likely at the time of this review, Oscar-winning performance but because the film itself is great filmmaking.

The film is loosely based on a true story of Idi Amin’s relationship with a Scottish doctor in 1970. Idi Amin has just come to power in a violent military coup. Amin has the support of the people because of his charisma and oratory magnetism. A young idealistic Scots doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, has come to Uganda to escape the dreariness of his middle-class British life. Nicholas is naïve and innocent and the perfect candidate for Amin to manipulate, in fact, Nicholas chooses Uganda arbitrarily by pointing his finger at a spinning globe. Nicholas bandages Amin’s sprained wrist after a car accident, this chance encounter impresses Amin, who then asks him to become Amin’s personal doctor. He accepts.

Nicholas enjoys the luxurious life of Amin’s decadent compound. But he is isolated from the rest of the country and naïve to the atrocities Amin is inflicting on his people. Nicholas’s involvement with the dictator deepens, so much so that when he realizes the corruption he’s involved it, Amin refuses to let him go. His position is even more complicated when he becomes involved with one of Amin’s attractive wives. This sets up an intense final act, as Nicholas tries to escape during a hostage crisis, which saw an Israeli-hijacked plane land in Uganda.

Some of the credit of Whitaker’s performance must go to the director and cinematographer (the great Anthony Dod Mantle). Whitaker’s speeches are shot with long lenses, and crash zooms, complementing the intensity of Amin’s public performances. The film has the graininess and look of a 16mm documentary, which adds to the authenticity. The vibrant yellows, greens and reds burst out of the screen. The pacing increases throughout the film and is accompanied by a terrific African-beat soundtrack. Two scenes standout – the hypnotic scene when Nicholas seduces Amin’s wife (the editing of which reminds me of the end of “Apocalypse Now”) and the final sequence in the airport. The film doesn’t shy away from the gore, and showing the horrors of Amin’s brutality in graphic detail. Two specific scenes made me turn away from the screen.

Kevin MacDonald (“Touching the Void” and the Oscar-winning “One Day in September”) is a great British filmmaker, and along with Paul Greengrass and Michael Winterbottom, seems to have created their own “British New Wave” – a realist/global-conscious cinema-style. If this is MacDonald’s “Bloody Sunday”, perhaps will see him wooed to Hollywood like Greengrass.

This is one of the best films of the year and a must-see. Enjoy.


Patrick said...

I had a problem with this movie. The invention of the doctor - this seemingly very influential character in Ugandan history who actually never existed - blurred the line of fact and fiction to a problematic degree. Add to that the fact that you have, in Dr. Garrigan and Idi Amin, TWO anti-heroes playing off each other, the story just didn't fly for me. To their credit however, the filmmakers did bypass that tired old standby of the good white man trying to save the poor ignorant Africans from themselves.

Forrest Whitaker was fantastic and deserving of whatever awards they want to give him, the cinematography was indeed great, but appropriating this bloody era in Ugandan history for the purposes of making an exotic thriller just seemed kind of disrespectful to the past.

But that's just my opinion...

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks for your comments Patrick.

I didn't know the real history going into the film, and indeed the tragic events are to some degree exploited (but no more so than most other historical films). Do filmmakers now have a greater responsibility? Perhaps.

And it should in no way be taken as the definitive Ugandan film. I do think it has greater impact than Hotel Rwanda or Blood Diamond. What's your thoughts?

Patrick said...

I guess part of what bothered me was that the 'based on true events' header made it seem as though it was more fact-based than it was. You're right, though, historical movies do this all the time. But maybe it's different when it's your own history you're toying with.

I don't know about impact, since 'Last King of Scotland' seem less interested in the devastating effects of Idi Amin's madness than it was in making a thriller about a callow Scottish fish out of water learning important lessons from his savage African exprience.

The only heroic character in the movie, the African doctor, sacrifices himself so that this made-up asshole can live and spread awareness about Amin's madness. This is a pretty major cop out. If anyone should have sacrificed himself, it should have been Garrigan - the one with all the blood on his hands.

'Hotel Rwanda', 'Blood Diamond' (which I have yet to see), and 'The Constant Gardener' wear their messages on their sleeves, which isn't the best thing either. Is the ultimate intention to raise awareness of African problems, or is it just dramatic opportunism on the part of the filmmakers? At least something like 'Blood Diamond' tackles an issue people can act upon in the here and now.

I guess I just look forward to the day when Africans will have the resources to tell their own stories on screen. Privileged white guys like Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) don't count.

Anonymous said...

I kind of felt the point was that he was worthless [nick, our "hero"] but that he still lived because he was white, and his life was internationally worth more than the heroic doctor. i.e. people would listen to him.

and in a parallel, even though the african doctor is the hero of the film, the main character is nick because he is white, and because of who he speaks to. in other words, because americans would rather see a movie about a scottish doctor than the african one.

I'm not saying that this generalization is actually a fact [movies like hotel rwanda are successful after all], but it seemed like a point the movie was making. as though it acknowledges that the west needs to see movies about africa through a white main character, but that the character is occasionally not any good, doesn't do anything useful, and occasionally leaves africa after making a mess of everyone's lives. kind of like sticking it to the traditional "good white dr" movie.

just my quick thoughts that are probably all wrong.